Interview with Don Ross
hat got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
My father is very musical. He grew up in Scotland and learned to play the bagpipes. He studied Opera when he got to Canada. Fortunately for my fans, the pipes were not my instrument of choice! We also had a piano in the house from the time I was quite young, and I started noodling around quite a bit on that instrument. It was when I was about eight years old and my older sister brought a reject guitar home from school (when her school was given a lot of money to upgrade the instruments in their orchestra) that my older brother and I took to the guitar with gusto! He was six years older than me, so he learned a lot from friends at school and compared notes with them, and then he would come home and show me what he learned from his friends. I found learning a lot about music and getting better and better at playing the guitar to be very exciting as I grew, and it kept me out of a lot of trouble!
If I had not gotten into music? Well, I've always been keenly interested in astronomy, so who knows, maybe I'd be working for the Canadian Space Agency or something!
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I spend so much time composing and performing music every day, that I sometimes find it hard to think about what I do when I'm not playing and composing! I enjoy cycling and keeping up on current affairs. The cycling is an excuse to get outdoors in the fresh air, and to keep myself from dying too early from sitting around playing instruments all the time! Ha ha. I find that being in contact with the outdoors, whether it's on the top of a bicycle or whether it's walking around in a different city while on the road… all of it gets me out of my head a little bit and makes me take in the larger, three-dimensional world that's out there. I think enjoyment of all of that has a big influence on the music in general. Most of the music on my latest album, WATER, is very optimistic. It was part of my coping mechanism, while dealing with things like Covid lockdowns over the past few years.
How long have you been making music?
I've been creating music in one form or another since I was a young child, but I started getting really serious about it when a guitar showed up in the house. From that point on, I found that it gave me tremendous focus to learn as much about how to play the instrument and about music as I possibly could. So, you could say I've been a relatively serious student of Music since about the age of eight. I ended up doing a Bachelors degree in music at York University in Toronto, and then finally made the decision to be a full-time musician at the age of 25.
Where are you based and how did that influence your music?
My wife and I have been living on Prince Edward Island for the last two years. She grew up here, so it’s home. Before that we lived for extended periods in Nova Scotia, but I've spent most of my life in either Quebec or Ontario. I've seen a lot of the world, and I'm convinced that Canada is definitely one of the best places to live on the planet. On top of that, the quality of life here on the Island is extremely good, and the way of life is peaceful and easy-going for the most part. It makes it extra easy to be creative, because I'm the kind of person who needs space and quiet in order to be creative. If life is too chaotic, or if there's too much going on, it can be really challenging to create good music, at least for me. When my kids were little, I found myself doing most of my composition of new music in hotel rooms on the road, because it was one of the few times I ever had some peace and quiet!
Tell me about your most memorable shows, if you haven’t played live what is your vision for a live show?
I've played so many concerts that sometimes I find it hard to remember what the real standout ones were, as I've had many positive experiences on stage. Because I play solo most of the time, sometimes the chances to collaborate with really great musicians are some of my favourite experiences. I have a quartet, called Don Ross Louder Than Usual, in which I get to play my jazzier compositions with three other really incredible musicians. Another big highlight is when I get a chance to play with a good orchestra, which has only happened a handful of times, but is incredibly gratifying when it goes well. A well-orchestrated arrangement of my tunes, played by really fine orchestral musicians, is a real thrill. There's nothing quite like having a 70 piece back up band!
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
I've had the chance to perform at Massey Hall in Toronto a few times, and it's a particularly lovely old room. I've also played a venue in Neubrandenburg, Germany, with the local orchestra several times. It's really a fantastic room. It was originally a church, built in the 12th century, and then badly damaged during the Second World War. The former East German government did an incredibly meticulous job, rebuilding the roof of the church, and then transforming the inside into a beautiful concert hall. So it's this incredible mix of 12th century German architecture, complete with the original fresco paintings, and a beautifully designed, acoustically perfect, very modern interior. It's just such a fantastic study in contrasts, and the room sounds beautiful. Not only that, the orchestra’s fantastic. When I got to play with them, they had a really wonderful conductor who was also a jazz piano player, so he had a really wide open pallette in terms of his approach. So, it was a combination of factors that led that to be one of my favourite venues. I ended up writing a fair bit of music, just standing in the room during free time.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Well, there's kind of a “fantasy football” approach, where I think about musicians that I've always dreamed about collaborating with, whether or not that would be particularly possible. Very high on the list would be the great piano player and composer Keith Jarrett. Unfortunately, health issues prevent him from playing live anymore, but I attended a few concerts of his over the years, and always thought that he was one of the world’s most gifted musicians in any genre. I would also like to collaborate with a great composer like Steve Reich, but again our paths have never crossed, even though his music has greatly influenced several of my pieces that I've written for guitar.
In terms of currently active musicians? It would be wonderful to play a show that included Stevie Wonder, Anderson .Paak, Grégory Privat, Domi and Larnell Lewis!
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into making music and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Advice I would give to anyone at any point over the course of the history of my career would be to be as adaptable as possible. That has been especially the case since the year 2000 and the way that the Internet has changed the way music is created and distributed. If one wants to continue making music, one has to be able to change along with the times, and become adept at using technology to one's advantage, rather than just complaining about things changing and not being able to keep up. So, I find myself being a constant student and constantly learning new things about technology, like how to use sound libraries, and how to mix in Dolby Atmos for example. It's also a great way to keep your mind active in ways that are not always about simply writing and performing music. The age of the DIY musician is very much upon us.
It would've been nice to have a crystal ball when I started out and to be able to see how much the landscape would change over the course of what has become a rather lengthy career. I also sometimes indulged in complaining in the past, and lamenting what had been lost, especially in terms of ways to make money as a musician. But, like most disruptive times, new ways of promoting music and monetizing it have emerged. I would also encourage musicians just getting started to create as much interactive content as possible. So, being active on whatever the current platforms are, including the Instagrams, Facebooks, and other social media of the time. Of course, that changes, too, much like everything else. I remember well when it was important to maintain one's MySpace!
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
I guess, overall, the tunes that I have dedicated to various people in my life, especially those who are no longer here, are especially meaningful to me. Admittedly, there are times when I'm playing one of those dedications live, when I can barely keep myself from getting too emotional on stage, especially when the piece is fresh. There are also tunes that are quite important landmarks for me, that represent big steps I made as a composer and a performer. Very often those tunes are also very popular with my audience, so it can be really gratifying to get to play those tunes again live and to hear the people react, and to get so much energy back from the audience. So, those tunes are especially meaningful, especially tunes like "Michael, Michael, Michael,” and “The First Ride.” Sorry, I realize that’s two tunes, not one!
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
Well, there are the ones I mentioned in the previous answer, as well as other tunes that get requested a lot, such as “Berkley Springs,” “Tight Trite Night,” “A Million Brazilian Civilians,” and a lot of people are digging the new single off the new album, a piece called “Seabright.” I love playing all of those.
What is your creative process, and what inspires you to write your music?
My creative process is pretty elastic, in that I don't really have a set way of writing a piece of music. The guitar tunes very often are spontaneous ideas that usually start off as a bass groove, or a cool set of changes, or a melody I can't get out of my head, or a combination of all of those at once. The guitar tunes for the most part are germinated away from the instrument, and then I try to find a way of playing the idea on the guitar. I also write a lot of music for video games and film these days, and that's quite a different process that pretty much always happens in my studio, and usually at a midi piano keyboard. So, I have more than one way of working, which actually feels really good simply because it makes the composition process that much less predictable.
As far as inspiration goes, like I mentioned earlier, it can be travel, or it can be environment, it can be people that I meet or that I love, or it can be reminiscing about a situation in life that can either be sublime or ridiculous!
Do you have messages that you like to get across in your music, if so please tell me about them?
The vast majority of the tunes that I write are instrumental, so they don't necessarily convey direct meanings or messages, or at least not ones that can be said to be universal. Even when I do write a set of lyrics, which doesn't happen very often admittedly, I tend to be more attracted to lyric writing that is more imagistic and less literal. If you think, for example, of the lyrical content of a typical Bruce Cockburn song, or one of many Joni Mitchell songs, or the lyrics of David Byrne…it won't necessarily be completely apparent what it is that they are singing about. Very often the lyrics mean different things to different people. I'm much more interested in that kind of song… one that lets the listener go to their own place with what they're hearing…almost like vocal instrumental music. The prime example of that would be Cocteau Twins, of whom I am a huge fan! No one knows what any of their songs “mean.”
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I plan to keep creating innovative music for the guitar, as well as continuing to write music for all kinds of musical setups. The music I write for film and video games ranges from full symphony orchestra, all the way to James-Brown-style funk band. I really am a fan of almost any kind of music, and I'm really not a “guitar head.” The guitar is just a really convenient way to write polyphonic music and make it portable and viable as a solo touring instrument! The other day, a good friend suggested that maybe it's time for me to write a full-on symphony. I think that would be cool. It's a massive amount of work, but maybe I'm still young enough to pull it off!
How can your fans best keep up to date with you, any socials you want people to check out?
There's my good old website (remember those???), which is donrossonline.com. My Instagram is donrossmusic, and my Facebook is donrossonline. I’m really just getting going with TikTok (also donrossmusic), but who knows how long it’ll be allowed to function before Western governments step in! Remember what I said about adapting? :-) I’ve given up on Twitter. Haha…